Interview With ‘Great Western’ Graffiti Artist Peter SheridanMonday, April 14th, 2014
Peter Sheridan is a professional artist based in Dorchester. He was behind the new graffiti art on the railway bridge on Damers Road, which provoked a really interesting debate on our Facebook page last week.
We met up with Peter last week to talk about his background as an artist and his thoughts on the Damers Road project.
How did you get into graffiti art?
I was born in Glasgow, and grew up in Manchester. The way I got into graffiti was through hip hop. I visited New York in 1982 when I was 12, and hip hop was just kicking off. It was odd and exciting, and it was completely alien to the UK at the time.
When it started taking off here, my brother got into break dancing, and I did too, but I wasn’t any good at it. I realised the only way that I could find my place in that world was through painting.
I was lucky at school because I had a really good art teacher, who encouraged me a lot. I did an art foundation course, and studied alongside Chris Ofili, the Turner Prize winner. I went into advertising from there, working in design around the country, and finally ending up here in Dorset.
I’ve been here for 15 years now, and I’ve been lucky to get to a stage now where I get plenty of work through word of mouth. I don’t have a website and don’t need one as yet; my jobs come from my name being out there and my work ranges from private commissions to community workshops and projects in schools and colleges. I work in any medium.
How did you become involved in the Damers Road project?
I was painting the double decker bus for the Curiosity Centre here in Dorchester, and the owner mentioned to me that there was this graffiti project going on in the town. I didn’t know anything about it, so I called the district councillor who was behind it. They didn’t have any professional local artists involved at that point, so I offered my help and got involved in the project that way.
Where did the ideas for the Damers Road designs come from?
The project had already been named ‘The Good Graffiti Project’ – which I thought was a presumptuous title; who’s to say what kind of graffiti is good? So the first piece I did in Bridport for the project was based around the film The Good, The Bad And The Ugly, and that was my take on the whole ‘good graffiti’ idea. So when I was asked to do Dorchester, I already had the Western idea in my head, which fitted really well because of the Great Western railway.
I based my cowboy on Jeff Bridges, from the new version of the movie True Grit. Ironically, I painted him with a cigarette originally, but painted it out because I knew someone would say I was advocating smoking! I really wanted to keep the Great Western design subtle; my aim was to gently introduce street art to Dorchester and not turn people off.
For the other side of the bridge, I knew whatever I painted would probably stay up for a while, so I was thinking what would look good there. I had this idea of putting a troll under the bridge, but I didn’t want it to be a scary, stereotypical troll, so I used the character Carol from Where The Wild Things Are as the basis of my troll, and adapted the body a little bit. I also intentionally chose to make the image subtly emerge from the wall, without any harsh colours.
The idea is to evoke escapism when stuck in traffic. It’ll be one of those things that will take you away from your journey and transport you somewhere else for a second, whether you’re a kid or an adult.
What was the process you used for creating the designs on Damers Road?
The first thing I do for any painting is to think about where the work is going to be and how it will fit into the surrounding area. I try to have consideration for the local community by imagining living with a painting, and then I’ll come up with various concepts.
If I don’t have any time to draw, I’ll just do prints of what I need to paint. For example with the cowboy and the gun, I didn’t have time to draw, so I had a print out of Jeff Bridges to work from and just tried to recreate that as best as I could within the time scale. I’m kind of used to doing it that way.
As well as the positive feedback, there was also some controversy around the Great Western piece. Were you surprised by the reaction at all?
Well it was a massive caricature of a cowboy with a cartoon pistol, so to me it was obvious that it wasn’t meant to be taken seriously. I think the person who complained to the Council may have stereotyped us a little bit, and assumed it was some violent gangsta hip hop thing, because that’s what graffiti stereotypically is to some people.
It turned into a big debate and I think things got a bit out of hand, and people were using the issue to get on their soapbox online fighting over their political views about the town. There were all sorts of arguments, people were threatening to graffiti the WDDC building, and because of this, the project was at risk of being shut down.
The Town Council sent me a letter to say they were happy for the painting to stay as it was. Then there was talk of it being put to a vote, and it felt like everything was taken out of my hands. I’d just had enough of it all and didn’t want to be told what to do, so I painted the giant bubbles on, to show how ridiculous the whole thing had become. It was a nod to the absurdity of it all.
I didn’t anticipate that people would actually be upset by me adding the bubbles! They thought I’d taken away their cause, but I’d never intended it as any kind of statement. Plus, I think the bubbles actually enhance the painting – it’s gone from a flat, two dimensional piece to now actually leading your eye up towards the top of the bridge.
How long do you expect your artwork to stay up there?
I think the way the troll is painted means that it will get better the grubbier it gets – the more pigeon muck and moss it gets on it, the more at home it will seem there. But eventually people will get bored with these paintings. After they’ve been there for a year or so, it will be just like passing a lamp post – people probably won’t react to it anymore.
I’d like for it to be an annual thing, where professional artists get to submit designs for the bridge and it gets renewed every year. But who knows what will happen with it. Part and parcel of street art is that these things are transient, and they’re not meant to last forever, that’s what makes it special.
Do you think Dorchester offers potential as an artistic space? Is it somewhere that welcomes creativity and new ideas?
This project has shown me Dorchester is really open to public art, and is really interested in talking about it and debating it. I think the great thing about street art is that you don’t need to walk into a gallery, which can be quite stuffy or intimidating – you can just see it there on the street and start having a conversation about it. Art is for everyone, I really believe that.
To see more of Peter’s work or to get in touch to talk about commissioning some work, visit his Facebook page – https://www.facebook.com/PeterSheridanArtist